Should Your President Be Self-Serving or Conscientious?

How do you  go about choosing a candidate to support? Is it an entirely rational process? Do you decide what the most important issues are for you and then compare each candidate’s proposed policies on them point by point to make your selection? Or do you go by your “feel” for the integrity and character qualities of the individual candidates? When the candidates are in broad agreement on the major issues (such as ending the Iraq occupation, providing healthcare for all Americans, restoring constitutional limits on executive power, etc.) and they only differ in some specifics of how they would get to those goals, questions of character begin to take on more weight, even among those who are most wonkishly informed and passionate on the issues.

Political psychologist Aubrey Immelman, research director and founder of the Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics at Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict in Collegeville and St. Joseph, Minnesota, specializes in developing personality profiles of prominent political figures (as well as criminals – heh).

Dr. Immelman has been frequently quoted in the MSM since the founding of his unit in 1999. Lately he’s been popping up on CNN, Fox, Newsweek, etc., in connection with Mitt Romney tearing up in NH. He’s pointed out how things have changed since Edmund Muskie’s campaign-busting 1972 tear/melted snowflake, except for Hillary, who as a woman running in 2008 still doesn’t dare shed a tear in public without risking being labeled unfit for leadership.

His methodology involves use of a list of 170 criteria that he and his students use to analyze his subjects, using “biographical sources and media reports.” Several independent sources must corroborate each characteristic before it is included for analysis. This “raw data” is then “synthesized into a personality profile using the second edition of the Millon Inventory of Diagnostic Criteria (MIDC), which yields 34 normal and maladaptive personality classifications congruent with Axis II of DSM-IV.”

You may class this as pop psychology on the level of validity of Dr. Frist diagnosing from afar, but it is at least a standardized process that synthesizes vast quantities of information, a process not unlike what we do (in a less systematic way) when we make judgments about a candidate’s character based on our exposure to their words and actions over time.

So what does Dr. Immelman have to say about the three Democratic front-runners? Here are the core assessments he and his students make:

Barack Obama:

Sen. Obama’s primary personality patterns were found to be Ambitious/confident-self-serving and Dominant/asserting, with secondary features of the Outgoing/congenial and Accommodating/cooperative patterns.

Hillary Clinton:

Clinton’s primary personality patterns were found to be Ambitious/self-serving and Dominant/controlling, with secondary Conscientious/dutiful features and subsidiary, more situation-specific Contentious/resolute and Distrusting traits.

Ambitious individuals are bold, competitive, and self-assured; they easily assume leadership roles, expect others to recognize their special qualities, and often act as though entitled. Dominant individuals enjoy the power to direct others and to evoke obedience and respect; they are tough and unsentimental and often make effective leaders.

Hillary Clinton’s major personality strengths in a leadership role are her commanding presence and confident assertiveness. Her major personality-based shortcomings are an uncompromising, overcontrolling tendency, a lack of empathy and congeniality, and cognitive inflexibility.

John Edwards:

Edwards’ primary personality patterns were found to be Outgoing/congenial and Accommodating/cooperative, with secondary features of the Ambitious/confident and Conscientious/respectful patterns.

For a  little more detail on what each of these personality patterns entails, see here.

My thoughts on this are that “self-serving” in and of itself is to be expected from these “professional

 opportunists
,” as David Sirota has taken to referring to politicians in general. The question is what is that trait going to be turned in service of – purely the politician him/herself, or harnessed to larger party and national interests? “Self-serving” teamed with “Ambitious” and “Accommodating” explains to me a great deal about Obama’s sharp elbows toward his own party and party activists in favor of the approval of the Beltway Villagers. On the other hand, “Self-serving” and “Ambitious” when teamed with  “Conscientious” and “Contentious” (as in the case of Hillary) seems a safer and more helpful cluster of qualities in the current political climate.

I also find the Edwards profile interesting. The raw data for these profiles is gathered and analyzed over many months, and I wonder if the material on which Edwards’ profile is based was gathered while he was still in Johnny Sunshine mode and before he properly took up the fiery populist rhetoric that’s been more and more characterizing his campaign as it goes on. Like Al Gore, his ambition is rooted in his conscientiousness, but his congenial and outgoing character may help advance policies the wooden and unpersonable Gore could not.

If you doubt the validity or predictive power of this type of personality profiling, take a look at what Dr. Immelman had to say about Texas governor George W. Bush back in August 1999:

Gov. Bush’s primary personality patterns were found to be Outgoing/gregarious and Dauntless/adventurous…

A dimensional reconceptualization of my Millon-based findings…suggests that Bush is a highly charismatic (extraverted), somewhat interpersonal (agreeable) leader, but not very deliberative (conscientious). This profile suggests that a President George W. Bush – despite attempts to cultivate an image of disdain for public opinion – will actively refine his public persona, skillfully maintain his political viability, and be activist and energetic (outgoing qualities) rather than cautious or conservative in his role as chief executive.

A less-than-deliberative President Bush, however, will run the risk of failing at times to fully appreciate the implications of his decisions, displaying sufficient depth of comprehension, or effectively weighing alternatives and long-term consequences of policy initiatives. Furthermore, an outgoing, relatively unreflective President Bush may not keep himself as thoroughly informed as he should (for example, by reading briefings or background reports), may force decisions to be made prematurely, may lose sight of his limitations, and may tend to sacrifice effective policy for political success.

In summary, George W. Bush’s major personality strengths as a presidential candidate are the important political skills of charisma and interpersonality, which should enable him to connect with voters and maintain his early lead in the race. His personality-based limitations include a propensity for superficial command of complex issues, a tendency to be easily bored by routine, a predisposition to act impulsively, and a predilection to favor personal connections, friendship, and loyalty over competence in staffing decisions and political appointments – all of which could render a Bush administration vulnerable to errors of judgment or ethical misconduct.

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7 comments

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    • Nordic on December 31, 2007 at 11:40 pm

    there were others running besides these three.

  1. to all for the New Year.

  2. Mindreading is not yet much of a science.

    Fascinating is how few can recognize a psychopath.  Jack Olsen told a wonderful story about sitting at lunch with a pair of psychology professors and being embarrassed by being asked about psychopaths.  Jack Olsen was a true crime writer without any clinical or academic experience but studied the genre more intensively than most any human being.

    Oddly the one outstanding, universal attribute of all psychopaths (a misnomer) is their charm.

    Ring any bells?

    At least we can probably say that Hillary ain’t no psychopath.  Got to give her that. 🙂

    Best,  Terry

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